Brave voice of Russia's accuser

Date: March 22, 2002
Source: Times
By Michael Binyon


A tribute to a Russian journalist's expose of the Chechen war

One of the bravest and most outspoken Russian journalists, a woman who has exposed the brutalities, corruption and human rights violations of the Russian troops in Chechnya, was yesterday honoured by a British human rights campaign with an award for the most courageous defence of freedom of expression.

Anna Politkovskaya was given the award by Index on Censorship for her dogged insistence - despite official harassment, arrest and crude threats of rape and murder - on reporting the terrorising of Chechen civilians, the destruction, torture, kidnappings and barbarities on both sides in this rarely reported war.

She has made 40 visits to the breakaway republic, sending vivid and meticulously researched reports to Novaya Gazeta, a small, liberal bi-weekly that is one of the few remaining independent papers in Russia. In recent weeks Russian courts have imposed two huge libel fines on the paper, of more than $700,000, in an officially inspired attempt to force it into bankruptcy and silence its criticisms.

Speaking to The Times, Politkovskaya says that the threats against her have been continual since August. Russian officials hinted that she should go into exile or live abroad. Friends have warned her that she could be the victim of a car "accident". She has been vilified in the Russian press, denounced as a Western agent and accused of stirring up trouble for her paper to win a grant from the Soros Foundation.

"I will go on working for as long as possible," she says. The record libel fines imposed on Novaya Gazeta, officially for defaming a judge and to compensate a bank that was named in a money-laundering scandal, would be fought in the courts, Politkovskaya says. The paper could continue publication for several months. She also intends to sue for defamation over some of the charges made against her.

Politkovskaya, a middle-aged mother of two from a privileged background, is the modern equivalent of the dissident in Soviet times. She says that last night's award will increase the pressure on her in Russia, but will also offer a measure of protection as the authorities will not now dare to kill or harm a woman honoured abroad.

Her protests, like those of the late Andrei Sakharov, have also evoked widespread, though silent, admiration from many senior figures in Russia. "There is no question that many ordinary soldiers agree with what I have been saying," she says. "The younger ones in the Army have often helped me."

She began reporting from Chechnya after the start of the second war there in 1998. But conditions have become more difficult. Few foreigners venture there; almost all Russian reporters now visit only with official escorts, and report only what the Kremlin licenses.

Politkovskaya is in no doubt who is responsible for the conduct of the war. "It is the President (Putin)," she says. "He directs military operations and has overall responsibility. Why does the Army allow soldiers to do everything they want in Chechnya?" She is equally outspoken, however, in condemning some of the Chechen leaders, especially Shamil Bassayev and the Arab-born Emir Khattab, both of whom she believes had clear criminal connections.

She insists that she has no political agenda in Chechnya: "My task is easy. I am a journalist. I write what I see. I have talked a lot with all kinds of people, including generals. I am obliged to speak out. The rest is the job of the politicians."

It was her humanity that drew her gradually into this embattled position. Previously she had reported mainly on social deprivation. She began to visit Chechnya when she realised that, with seven million refugees from the conflicts all over Russia, the situation was not being properly reported.

But her lone voice is not popular with ordinary people. Most support the war in Chechnya and believe that the Chechens have brought the devastation on their own heads. Last month she was taken to a military base, supposedly for her own protection, but was harassed and intimidated. She managed to slip away and disappeared for two days until she was able to walk across the frontier to safety.

Is the West naive over Chechnya? "No, the West knows well what is going on, but prefers not to look. The war there is convenient - the West wants Putin to ensure that there is no hunger, no refugees."

She will continue to be an awkward voice, in Russia and in the West. Her book A Dirty War is a devastating indictment of what she has seen. One by one, human rights groups honour her testimony.

Anna Politkovskaya won the Most Courageous Defence of Freedom of Expression Award at Index on Censorship's Freedom of Expression Awards on March 21.


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